When Avonte Maddox was drafted by the Eagles in the fourth round of this year’s NFL Draft, the expectation seemed clear. A slightly shorter but highly competitive nickel corner would watch Sidney Jones own slot responsibilities this year before making the step up himself after an assumed reshuffle that would see the Washington product move outside. That seemed to be case throughout training camp and beyond, at least until the injury bug sunk its teeth in.
Sidney Jones, Corey Graham and Rodney McLeod are three of the defensive backs to have been ripped out of the Eagles defense with a heartbreaking injury. With a complete lack of depth across the board, Jim Schwartz had a tough decision. Does he move Malcolm Jenkins back to a traditional safety role, or keep him down inside the box where he spent 55% of his snaps last year, enjoying one of his finest seasons in the process?
As the injuries mounted, Schwartz stuck to his guns. Keeping Jenkins inside the box without much in the way of Safety help over the top seemed like suicide, at least until Maddox stepped up.
After getting his feet wet with 28% of defensive snaps against the Titans, Schwartz doubled down on the rookie, who had never played the position until this moment. Not only did Maddox become the team’s LONE starting safety, holding down the fort in cover-3 scenarios, but was named the team’s sixth captain in his second start. Stunningly, his progress is only inclining further as time goes on.
Whether it’s showing signs of improvement against the Vikings, saving four points with a courageous tackle on Saquon Barkley, or becoming one of the team’s brightest stars in London, the 22-year old isn’t just growing into some big boots, he’s customizing them and taking over the position.
In a big win over the Jags, Maddox collided with Carlos Hyde in the backfield on a key third and short situation, showing that same explosiveness and willingness to get into the backfield as his 13.5 career tackles for a loss at Pitt would suggest. This was easily his most impressive game yet and was cemented by forcing a game-changing fumble.
“He’s a smart guy, he’s mature beyond his years.” Schwartz said of Maddox earlier in this season. “From the time he’s got here, there really hasn’t been a situation where things were too big for him. He’s just got a great attitude. When we said, ‘Hey, we need you to take some safety reps.’ He was like, ‘Okay.’ We said, ‘Hey, you have to go in there and play the nickel.’ [He said], ‘Okay.’ Those guys with that low blood pressure, that serves them well in stressful situations like that. Doesn’t serve defensive coordinators well or secondary coaches or anybody else, but those guys on the field, he never bats an eye no matter what you’re asking him to do, special teams, you know, any position on defense.
The secure-tackling of Maddox gives the Eagles a sudden sense of comfort at Safety. Malcolm Jenkins has always been one of the defenses most important players and knowing that Maddox can hold down the backend gives Schwartz the freedom to use Jenkins in run-stopping situations and as an extra blitzer, not to mention picking up big receiving tight ends.
On the other end of that, the struggles of Eagles cornerbacks have been noted all year long, from the double-moves to amount of deep plays given up, the presence of Maddox has added an extra level of security for the corners, with his short-area quickness pushing him close to the ball time after time.
This could’ve been a situation that pushed the Eagles defense to its limits, but instead, it’s service as normal thanks to the rise of one very talented rookie. Someone who wants to be in the heart of the action, Maddox was still able to end his collegiate with 51 passes defensed despite being undersized, which says a lot about his desire and drive to outwork whoever stands in front of him. That quality also stood out to one of the finest front office tandems in the league.
“Yeah, so, Avonte, first time I was able to see him was down at the East-West [Shrine Game], and liked how he touched on.” Roseman explained on day 3 of the draft. “Highly competitive. You could see that on every one-on-one rep.
As far as the change of direction, redirect, you really saw that at the top of routes with receivers. [He’s] really good staying in phase with those guys, staying in their hip pocket, and not letting guys create separation. Always competitive at the catch point.”
The Eagles knew exactly what they were getting in Maddox and had clearly did plenty of homework. The ability to cross-train defensive backs has become a specialty for Jim Schwartz and Maddox is a shining example. To go from a rookie corner who had never played safety before, to one of the defenses top performers in a matter of weeks is just astounding. The 22-year old has an incredibly high ceiling and it won’t be that farfetched to assume that the Birds’ will keep him on the backline with Rodney McLeod next season.
With inconsistent cornerback play and some struggles defending the intermediate area of the field, Maddox is puts the ‘don’t break’ in an infamous Jim Schwartz saying. Maddox is the reason the Eagles can play that style of defense and if it wasn’t for his stunning reliability and consistency in a time where the Eagles lacked both of those qualities, they may not be 4-4 right now.
All we do know for sure however is that the future looks incredibly bright for Avonte Maddox.
Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports